Content Warning: This article contains mentions of anti-trans jokes.
Comedy is still being used to discriminate against trans people, and comedians like Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle have recently received backlash due to their anti-trans ‘jokes’.
While in the real world trans people continue to face discrimination within sectors such as healthcare, work, and education, some ‘comedians’ decide to target minorities in an attempt to remain funny and attain relevance.
Even within cinema, trans people were portrayed as subjects of mockery for cis people’s entertainment throughout history. For decades, the only way they were represented was through mockery or violence. While we are slowly starting to see more positive changes as trans people start to control their own narratives, some ‘comedy’ specials often still include anti-trans ‘jokes’.
In the past year, Netflix has been criticised for its comedy specials content including cis comedians who use anti-trans jokes as a way to further their career. ‘Comedians’ like Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle have come under fire due to their stand-up jokes.
Gervais’ new Netflix show titled Armageddon faced backlash from the LGBTQ+ community because of his insensitive use of trans people for comedy. This is following last year’s similar backlash to Supernature when GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, put out a statement referring to the Netflix stand-up as ‘dangerous, anti-trans rants masquerading as jokes’.
These ongoing, disgusting jokes around trans people’s genitals redirect the focus away from the discrimination trans people experience, and onto whether or not someone has male or female genitalia. It is simply an invasion of privacy to talk about someone’s intimate body parts, let alone using them for comedic effect. Essentially, these jokes perpetuate dehumanising myths about trans people and put the community at an even greater risk of violence and harassment.
Similarly, comedian Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special The Dreamer has sparked criticism. Chappelle is one of the most successful comedians in the US, yet many of his jokes rely on mocking trans people. Not only is his anti-trans comedy special offensive but it is also overdone, lacking in originality or thought. Nevertheless, the comedian remained firm about his jokes, claiming that they are only that – jokes. Yet, his jokes seem to particularly target the LGBTQ+ community.
Previously, several Netflix staff members as well as trans activists protested outside of Netflix’s headquarters against Chappelle due to his discriminating jokes about the trans community. One of his live shows also got cancelled due to this controversy.
According to Variety, Netflix decided to update their corporate culture memo, stating that while they do not support discrimination of any sort, they ‘program for a diversity of audiences and tastes’ and if viewers find it inappropriate, Netflix ‘may not be the best place for you’. This statement does not seek to combat anti-trans comedy but only blames those ‘offended’ by it.
Trans activist, poet and comedian Alok Vaid-Menon, spoke out about the issue of anti-trans jokes, stating that ‘comedy in its core was actually about championing change, and now most comedians have become ambassadors for the status quo’. Comedians should be capable of revealing the truth of what is happening around us through jokes which poke fun at society’s absurdity. Trans and gender-diverse people existing is not absurd, but rather the hundreds of anti-trans policies that aim to strip the trans community of their basic human rights are.
This issue cannot be boiled down to ‘just making jokes’, as comedy often reflects the views of the society we live in. These jokes have real-life effects on trans people who are disproportionately affected by violence, who are not able to use public bathrooms, and who face barriers when trying to access gender-affirming healthcare. It is not about limiting freedom of speech but about minimising hate speech.
Comedy is a very important tool in making people understand the mechanisms of society in all its absurdity. However, it is now being used by the same cis comedians who benefit from their privilege to make fun of trans people, instead of using comedy to tackle issues the world faces.